Silicon Valley has a problem. We have lost grasp on what the word ‘problem’ means. And for the sake of upholding the integrity of our community, this is an issue that needs to be solved.
Defined by the Oxford Dictionary, a “problem” is:
“a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome.”
Having lived in the Bay Area for quite some time now, it appears that our cultural end goal is to achieve some form of a fully-automated, seamlessly efficient version of existence. Anything less than this — and more importantly — any obstacle that restricts our standard of living — is now framed as a problem. Having to carry out any simple task, such as an errand or basic chore, is supposedly a problem.
We must stop referring to these things as problems, and instead see them for what they really are.
For those of us who have even considered these obstacles to be problems, we should count ourselves as part of the extremely lucky, and in many ways privileged, few. Some 800 million people across the globe have limited access to food or water. That’s about one in nine people on the planet. Now, that’s a problem. The lack of affordable housing and support for San Francisco’s poorest communities remains a problem. It’s a socially harmful situation that needs to be dealt with and overcome. Our healthcare systems are riddled with such complex problems that even huge sums of capital cannot resolve even basic first-principle issues. Our financial systems cripple society with the psychological gamification of credit that leads to mass debt.
Not knowing if you can get sushi delivered at 10pm to your exact location is not a problem. Not knowing where the nearest dry cleaner is, exactly, is not a problem either. Recognizing these obstacles or inconveniences and being able to avoid them are privileges — a special right enjoyed as a result of one’s socioeconomic position. They are perks that enable us to further our level of highly efficient living.
I’m not discrediting the on-demand service companies that serve the Bay Area and beyond. In fact, I use most (if not all) of these to increase my human efficiency and efficacy. I also work with a fund that may even go on to invest in such services one day. Having access to these services is one of the great perquisites of living in a place that is establishing a seamless relationship between services, technology, and every day experience. These are Perks. But for us to frame these privileges as solutions to problems is fundamentally wrong. Indeed, it is offensive to the majority of people across the world who couldn’t even dream of these perk-solutions due to the very real problems they face on a day-to-day basis.
At some point in Silicon Valley’s development over the last decade, we’ve got so lost in the now well-known overarching narrative of “changing the world.” As part of the startup ecosystem — both companies and investors — we’ve overemphasized the need for CEOs to sell us a vision to the point of dishonesty.
Please, pitch us your service provision enterprise. Tell us how it will make our lives here even better, and how investors will make large sums in our commitments. Tell us how it will free-up 20 minutes of our day. The market size of ‘preserving a proportion of people’s time’ is huge and will always be extremely valuable. Not every company has to claim to solve problems that change the world. As is clear from recent examples in the media, vision at the expense of truth can have huge repercussions for both consumers and investors alike. Not only this, but the lack of humility and the sprinkle of spin distracts us from what’s really important. Humanity’s grandest challenges.
If we continue to pitch our perk-based products and services as “game-changing solutions to global problems”, we will only demonstrate to the rest of the world how out of touch we are. We will show everyone else outside of The Valley, and outside of innovation hubs more broadly, that we have forgotten how big the world really is. And we will betray those working on projects that truly are ‘game-changing’, providing ‘solutions’ to very real and very troubling problems. Not all of us are that far-removed from the bell curve of reality.